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Epic
Conor Kostick
The O'Brien Press, 320 pages

Epic
Conor Kostick
Conor Kostick was a designer for the world's first live fantasy role-playing game, based in Peckforton Castle, Cheshire. He now resides in Dublin where he teaches medieval history at Trinity College Dublin. He is the author of several historical works and a strategic board game. He is the chairperson of the Irish Writers' Union.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Sherwood Smith

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It might be only my imagination, but it seems that a wave of wonderful science fiction and fantasy is coming out for young adult readers. Perhaps more fantasy than science fiction -- at least, so I perceive. Once upon a time a person could feel confident she'd kept up with everything, but not any more.

Fantasy, especially by American and British authors, is getting plenty of airtime. Deserved, too. But there are some excellent science fictional works not so easily available, at least here in the States. Conor Kostick's Epic, from The O'Brien Press in Ireland, is not found in our bookstores and I really wish it was.

This science fictional story posits a far future. Human beings are living on New Earth, governed by The Committee. Erik and his parents, Harald and Freya, live in a small town called Osterfjord, working hard on a failing farm. But hard as farm life is, it's far better than being forced to reallocate, leave everyone they know -- and maybe be stuck in the coal mines. Erik's parents hint that things could even be worse than that, but they won't tell him why, and at first he is especially angry with his father, since the one way out is to win in the computer game world Epic -- and his dad refuses to play.

Everyone plays Epic, adults and kids. They pretty much spend all their free time at it -- and even steal time from chores, since winning in Epic is the only way you can gain material good to make your real life better. Which unfortunately takes its toll on the economy of the planet. Young people have to score at a certain level before Central Allocations decides on their future studies -- or work. Life centers around the game to the degree that it isn't really a game, it's become their way of life. And Erik resents it even as he strives to figure a way to win in the game.

When the book opens Erik's been killed one too many times, losing carefully accrued points; his parents are supportive but he can see the stress his failure has caused. Erik goes in to try something desperate. Instead of designing a new character who scarcely has any physical attributes at all, reserving their limited choices of attributes for equipment and weapons to enable them to win the ongoing duels in the arena, which is where all characters eventually end up -- the only place you can win anything to help your life in the real world. Erik goes against unthinking tradition by choosing to run a girl player -- named Cindella -- full of charm and swashbuckling style.

And thereby Erik changes everything. At first just slowly -- only his best friends, stolid, honest Bjorn and tomboyish Injeborg, know who he is. They loyally ally with him as Erik tries for bigger stakes.

Along the way the game keeps taking unexpected turns -- and not just for Erik, Cindella, and their friends in and out of the game world, but for the adults. Including those on the Committee. We meet the Committee members, begin to understand their motivations, and how some of them developed their viewpoints on how New Earth ought to be governed -- even they can see that the economy is sliding toward disaster. There are moments of beauty, humor, big surprises, action, tension, and fascinating character insight, and very little that is predictable.

Using a game world inside a story is not a new trope, but Kostick's take is quite rare, and the characterizations are so strong this is never merely an RPG plotline written out in prose. Kostick writes with skill and grace, accelerating the story in Epic to a surprising climax. I believe kids in this country would love this book, as video games are a big component in kid life these days, and some even come to question gaming's place in the world at large. Can we really siphon off the all-too-human desire for violence and adventure through gaming? This book takes that idea about as far as it can go, and gives us some honest answers, while entertaining us right to the finish line.

Copyright © 2005 Sherwood Smith

Sherwood Smith is a writer by vocation and reader by avocation. Her webpage is at www.sff.net/people/sherwood/.


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